Restaurant review: Empire Café, Muizenberg
By Daisy Jones, 24 September 2019
Almost twenty years ago Garth van der Walt set a new foodie standard in the South Peninsula. Back in 1997, he was one of the founding members of The Olympia Café in Kalk Bay. His job was the food. Now he’s at it again.
It’s Friday night and there are white tablecloths over the wooden tables at the Empire Café in Muizenberg. There are flowers and candles. There’s a musician. Imposing, bearded Van der Walt is visible in the kitchen. The Empire isn’t usually open at night but Van der Walt is trying something new.
Our table is offered a free sangria – made the traditional way, with red wine, fresh fruit and sherry, – or a glass of cider. We’re handed a freshly-printed menu, listing just 15 dishes.
Our table is happy until the chisa nyama plate arrives. And then we become very happy.
Chisa nyama means ‘fired meat’ in IsiZulu. Van der Walt’s take on the tastes of township steakhouses is outstanding. The thin slices of beef short rib have an oily, smoky meatiness that is complemented by a loose, fresh-tasting polenta and Van der Walt’s made-from-scratch chakalaka. It’s an evocative dish. The chakalaka is chunky and good and hot. It takes you out of yourself like loud music. The meat tastes like being outside in the heat and the night. The yellow polenta is that warm-inside, restoring experience of a great night with friends.
The prego sauce for the albondigas – spicy Spanish meatballs – is also made from scratch. The venison meatballs – made mainly with kudu meat – are delicious. This time Van der Walt situates us somewhere between a gourmet prego roll and a boerie braai in the bushveld. Either way, we’re in South Africa, and we’re outside, near fire and beer.
Van der Walt does not pull punches with his flavours. At its best, his food is not just tasty but transporting.
And he’s at his best with meat. The way he pairs passion fruit with pork belly – that small plate staple – is bold, with both cooked and raw fruit on the plate.
My favourite vegetarian dish is the “meatiest” one. The roasted beetroot for the bruschetta with pesto and pecorino crisp is velvety-rich.
The other strongly-flavoured vegetarian dishes are good, too. The feta-filled chilli poppers are salty, spicy-hot and satisfying. The honey-caramelised Karoo green olives are deeply flavoursome.
The “quieter” dishes suffer by comparison. The prawn rissois, the guacamole with nachos, and the kingklip and ham phyllo parcels with tomato and basil cream are accomplished. They also demonstrate range. But sharing table space alongside the punchy meat dishes, they taste to me like date-night food when what I want is more parties-on-plates.
The biggest disappointment is the arancini: a crumbed mushroom risotto ball filled with mozzarella. The crumb is crisp and the risotto is tasty but the mozzarella is frozen. It’s a technical fault Van der Walt should not have made, but to be honest I don’t mind. Arancini are not hard to come by. I find Van der Walt’s takes on local flavours far more interesting than his Mediterranean-inspired dishes. (I’m going to have to go back another Friday for his waterblommetjie tempura.)
It’s the precedent set by the meat dishes that make the crème brûlée and the fruit crumble a little disappointing too. They don’t end the meal with a bang.
Given Van der Walt’s skill, there’s a modesty to this menu. As appropriate as tapas is to Empire Café, what with its view of grungey-salty Muizenberg Beach, I wonder if what Van der Walt is serving here isn’t essentially a five-course menu of small plates. One could easily build from dips and olives to veg to fish dishes to meat – and finally to dessert. The prices suggest tapas: the most expensive dish on the menu is R42. But the quality of the meat dishes is not far off the small plates at Pot Luck Club.
To be fair, Van der Walt has a challenge on his hands – and it’s not just to make a profit in famously unflashy Muizies. Van der Walt is conscious of the legacy of David Jones, founder and former owner of the Empire Café, who died suddenly last year.
Jones, Van der Walt and Kenneth McClarty opened Olympia Café together in 1997. Not only did The Olympia succeed, it inspired so many new cafes and coffee shops in the South Peninsula it’s no longer possible to swing a wetsuit without hitting a ciabatta or a flat white.
McClarty was the dog-loving foodie, and he’s still at The Olympia. Jones was the surfer-baker. His recipes are still in use in the Olympia bakery. Van der Walt was the meals guy. His cooking flair is behind many of the most-requested breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes on the Olympia’s chalkboard menu.
When Jones died twelve months ago, Van der Walt didn’t hesitate to step into his old friend’s shoes the Empire kitchen. Patrons of the café like the fact that Jones’s menu is still up, along with his portrait. This may explain why some items on the tapas menu are new and exciting, while others are soothingly familiar. I wouldn’t mind if Van der Walt phased out the hummus, the roast peppers and the smoked aubergine – but then I’m not a local.
Muizenberg is mellow and it’s anti-pretension. Van der Walt’s tapas evenings boast live music and we were entertained by South African music royalty: former Gereformeerde Blues Band guitarist Willem Moller. No-one was shouting Moller’s credentials from the rooftops, and Van der Walt doesn’t shout his. That’s admirable, of course, but I don’t think anyone would mind if Van der Walt cranked the flavour volume up. Come summer, we’ll be longing for as many SA-inspired small plates as he can produce.
Empire Café: 021 788 1250; 11 York Road, Muizenberg
- Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter. She is currently completing a novel.